Note: This story was last updated at 9:55 a.m. June 10.
In the first of two votes this month, the Oak Ridge City Council on Monday rejected a request from school officials for a 37-cent tax rate increase that would, among other things, help fund a technology initiative meant to eventually provide an electronic learning device or tablet to all students.
Council member Charlie Hensley said the tax increase would be the largest in the city’s history, and it came in late in the budget process.
The property tax rate is now $2.39 per $100 of assessed value. The increase would push it to $2.76, and it could cost the owner of a $200,000 home another $15 per month.
“I was looking to support a tax increase, but the one that we got asked for is really, really high,” Hensley said.
There was a two-part vote on the budget on Monday. The first reduced the amount transferred to the schools to roughly $14.6 million, which was about $3.3 million less than the school board had requested, and it kept the tax rate steady for the seventh year in a row. The vote on that amendment was 5-2, with Hensley and Council member Chuck Hope voting no.
The second vote, which was on the amended budget, was 6-1. Hope again voted no.
“If we continue to operate on a shoestring, all the departments will suffer,” Hope said after the meeting. He said a tax rate increase should be a “broad brush” and not just targeted in one area. With costs increasing, the city is going to have to spend more money at some point to maintain services, Hope said, or Oak Ridge will have to discuss whether those services are important.
The schools had requested $17.9 million from the city. Oak Ridge provides a little less than one-third of the school system’s funding.
The Council will consider the budget again on second and final reading on Monday, June 16. If the Council again declines to raise the tax rate, school officials said they’ll have to go “back to the drawing board” on their budget and will have to make cuts.
Besides funding the first phase of the technology initiative, the school system’s budget would also add five technology positions and give 2 percent pay raises to staff. About two-thirds of the extra money would be for the technology initiative, which is known as 1:1. The Oak Ridge Board of Education approved the budget in May.
“We came into this budget with what we felt was needed to take us beyond average,” school board chair Keys Fillauer said.
Like the school budget, the city’s budget also includes a 2 percent pay raise for employees. It would keep the funding for costs related to the city’s work with the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce at $175,000, and it would drop the funding to the Oak Ridge Convention and Visitors Bureau by $25,000 to $275,000. It would also include money for the summertime Secret City Sounds concert series and annual July 4 fireworks show.
Based on earlier input from City Council members, the city staff had recommended a budget that did not include a tax increase.
Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson outlined some final tweaks to the budget on Monday.
The vote on the budget followed a 90-minute public hearing, which featured school system supporters and parents who said they moved to Oak Ridge primarily for the schools and could afford a tax increase. They endorsed the 1:1 initiative, which could be rolled out first to middle school students, and said continued education cuts could reduce the Oak Ridge school system to mediocrity.
“We’re here to ask that you fully support the school board’s request,” said Chris Johnson, president of ORNL Federal Credit Union and chair of the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors.
The message at Monday night’s meeting was “cut, cut, cut,” school board vice chair Bob Eby said.
“Let’s get the city going in the other direction,” he said.
But others questioned the value of using the tablets, especially if any staffing cuts have to be made to make the money available. Oak Ridge City Council member Anne Garcia Garland called the 1:1 initiative unproven technology that could be obsolete in five years.
“Technology does not teach our kids,” Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn said. “Our teachers teach our kids.”
The next fiscal year starts July 1.
More information will be added as it becomes available.